WASHINGTON — In a much-anticipated speech delineating his foreign policy for the remainder of his term in office, US President Barack Obama said Wednesday that his administration’s refocus toward international cooperation provided a new opportunity to resolve tensions over Iran’s nuclear program. While warning that the odds of success are “still long” in getting Iran to give up its nuclear weapons development, he said that “for the first time in a decade, we have a very real chance of achieving a breakthrough agreement.”
“Despite frequent warnings from the United States, Israel, and others, the Iranian nuclear program steadily advanced for years,” Obama recalled, explaining why his new policy emphasized cooperation rather than unilateral American action. “But at the beginning of my presidency, we built a coalition that imposed sanctions on the Iranian economy, while extending the hand of diplomacy to the Iranian government.”
Obama said that the US-led international coalition has afforded “an opportunity to resolve our differences peacefully” with Iran.
“The odds of success are still long, and we reserve all options to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. But for the first time in a decade, we have a very real chance of achieving a breakthrough agreement – one that is more effective and durable than what would be achieved through the use of force,” he argued. “Throughout these negotiations, it has been our willingness to work through multilateral channels that kept the world on our side.”
During his speech to the 2014 graduating class at the United States Military Academy at West Point, Obama delineated the boundaries for American military action, telling the graduating cadets that “the United States will use military force, unilaterally if necessary, when our core interests demand it – when our people are threatened; when our livelihood is at stake; or when the security of our allies is in danger.”
“In these circumstances, we still need to ask tough questions about whether our action is proportional, effective and just.”
Striking an anticipated chord balancing between US engagement and internationalism, Obama told the graduates that “international opinion matters. But America should never ask permission to protect our people, our homeland, or our way of life.”
Obama said that the “threshold” for military action “must be higher” in situations that are of “global concern” but “do not pose a direct threat to the United States.” In the president’s vision, the higher threshold means that the US must seek international partnership and collective action in such cases.
“We must do so because collective action in these circumstances is more likely to succeed, more likely to be sustained, and less likely to lead to costly mistakes,” Obama explained.
Terrorism, said the president is “the most direct threat to America at home and abroad” for the foreseeable future. He warned, however, that “a strategy that involves invading every country that harbors terrorist networks is naïve and unsustainable.”
Instead, Obama said that he drew upon “the successes and shortcomings of our experience in Iraq and Afghanistan” to shift Washington’s counterterrorism strategy to one that will “more effectively partner with countries where terrorist networks seek a foothold.”
Obama described al-Qaeda as a decentralized threat with extremist affiliates, many of whom have focused their energies on targets in their host countries rather than on far-off targets on American soil.
“This lessens the possibility of large-scale 9/11-style attacks against the homeland, but heightens the danger to US personnel overseas,” he explained. “We need a strategy that matches this diffuse threat, one that expands our reach without sending forces that stretch our military thin, or stir up local resentments.”
Obama discussed successes in combating the core of al-Qaeda and “an insurgency that threatened to overrun the country” in Afghanistan, but noted that the military successes had to be reinforced by strengthening Afghan institutions.
A day after announcing that the US was moving toward what he described Wednesday as a “train and advise mission” in Afghanistan, the president emphasized that the reduced presence in the country “will allow us to more effectively address emerging threats in the Middle East and North Africa.”
Obama called on Congress to support a Counterterrorism Partnership Fund of up to $5 billion to bankroll a plan for what he termed “a network of partnerships from South Asia to the Sahel” in which the US will train, build capacity, and facilitate partner countries facing counterterror challenges.
Among those missions, he listed “training security forces in Yemen who have gone on the offensive against al-Qaeda, supporting a multinational force to keep the peace in Somalia, working with European allies to train a functioning security force and border patrol in Libya, and facilitating French operations in Mali.”
Obama said that one “critical focus” of the US’s effort would be the three-year-old crisis in Syria.
“As president, I made a decision that we should not put American troops into the middle of this increasingly sectarian civil war, and I believe that is the right decision,” he explained. “But that does not mean we shouldn’t help the Syrian people stand up against a dictator who bombs and starves his people. And in helping those who fight for the right of all Syrians to choose their own future, we also push back against the growing number of extremists who find safe-haven in the chaos.”
Obama said that the additional resources would be used to support Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq — both in supporting refugees and battling extremists spilling over their borders.
“I will work with Congress to ramp up support for those in the Syrian opposition who offer the best alternative to terrorists and a brutal dictator,” he promised, while assuring that the US would seek to do so as part of an international partnership.
Obama spoke to his more interventionist critics, saying that his new policy did not preclude taking direct action against terrorists. He did, however, warn that “in taking direct action, we must uphold standards that reflect our values. That means taking strikes only when we face a continuing, imminent threat, and only where there is near certainty of no civilian casualties.”
US actions, he warned “must not create more enemies than we take off the battlefield.”
The president said that the US should be “more transparent about both the basis for our actions, and the manner in which they are carried out – whether it is drone strikes, or training partners.” In order to do so, Obama said, he would “increasingly turn to our military to take the lead and provide information to the public about our efforts.”
“When we cannot explain our efforts clearly and publicly, we face terrorist propaganda and international suspicion, we erode legitimacy with our partners and our people, and we reduce accountability in our own government,” he warned.
International cooperation was a major theme in Obama’s speech, with the president still seeking to dispel international images of American unilateralism that plagued the administration of his predecessor, George W. Bush.
He called for reexamining institutions such as NATO, the United Nations, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, in order to “evolve these institutions to meet the demands of today.” Obama said that international monitoring and cooperation on both the ongoing crisis in Ukraine and in confronting the Iranian nuclear threat had achieved positive results, if not yet resolutions to either situation.
Climate change, Obama said, was one non-military application for his redirection toward international cooperation. The president said that in 2015, America intends to present a global framework for combating climate change. At the same time, he slammed Republicans in Congress, complaining that “we can’t call on others to make commitments to combat climate change if so many of our political leaders deny that it is taking place.”
American leadership, he continued, demands that Washington conform to international norms and the rule of law. In an effort to do so, he said, he would continue to push to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility and to “place new restrictions on how America collects and uses intelligence – because we will have fewer partners and be less effective if a perception takes hold that we are conducting surveillance against ordinary citizens.”
Obama acknowledged that the Arab Spring had challenged American policy and its commitment to reinforcing democratic values worldwide.
“In capitals around the globe – including some of America’s partners – there has been a crackdown on civil society. The cancer of corruption has enriched too many governments and their cronies, and enraged citizens from remote villages to iconic squares. Watching these trends, or the violent upheaval in parts of the Arab World, it is easy to be cynical,” he noted.
America’s fraught relationship with successive governmental successors to deposed Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak earned a special mention, with Obama emphasizing that Washington’s relationship with Cairo “is anchored in security interests – from the peace treaty with Israel, to shared efforts against violent extremism” rather than shared values. He warned, however, that US would continue to “persistently press for the reforms that the Egyptian people have demanded.”
Strikingly, the president did not speak at all about Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, which collapsed last month after Secretary of State John Kerry spent nine months trying in vain to secure progress.